As I review applications this year for admission to Columbia University's master's programs in environmental policy and sustainability management, I am, as always, struck by the idealism and dedication of these prospective students. Nearly all applicants express concern about the deteriorating state of our home planet, but none seem as urgent and heartfelt as those of young people from China. Many of these applicants are beneficiaries of China's impressive and rapid economic growth, but they are concerned about the environmental damage it has caused.
From the ground up, the world's social systems and cultures are rapidly changing. The force of the global economy, the power of global communications, and the ability of all of us to send and receive images and information instantly has bound us together in new ways that we do not yet understand. We certainly do not understand the political impact of these social changes. We know that nothing that happens in one part of the world can be kept from being seen in another part of the world.
The exchange of information and images includes education itself. It is not simply the availability of massive, open, online courses. It includes partnerships between universities across national boundaries. We also see new institutions like Columbia's Global Centers, my university's effort to create places outside of the U.S. for research and exchange on a wide variety of educational subjects. It also includes campuses set up by American universities abroad and the proliferation of online education programs. Perhaps most important, however, is the slowly growing trend of American students studying abroad and foreign students studying here. These 24/7 immersion experiences can provide a deep and multi-dimensional understanding of place. When undertaken correctly, these programs can build understanding and empathy.
While fewer than 10 percent of American college students study abroad, the number is growing. The number of foreign students studying in the United States is growing at an even faster rate. According to Elizabeth Redden of Inside Higher Ed:
The number of international students at U.S. universities increased 7.2 percent in 2012-13 to an all-time high of 819,644, according to the latest "Open Doors" survey of international enrollments and American study abroad participation, conducted annually by the Institute of International Education. The number of Americans studying abroad grew to 283,332 in 2011-12, representing a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year.
The fastest growing group of international students in the United States comes from China, which grew by over 21 percent between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. In fact, of the almost 820,000 international students studying in the United States, over 235,000 (29%) come from China.
I am certain that some xenophobic groups in American society are mistrustful of all of this global study and travel, but my own view is that study abroad and travel are important ways of building international understanding and trust. It is easy to demonize people you've never met, and more difficult to consider armed conflict against people you've lived among. Some see the American economy in competition with economies in Asia and other parts of the world and worry about foreign competitors stealing our technology and secrets. While there will always be military and security secrets, the rest of the global economy is just that: global. Products are made via supply chains that stretch across many borders, and all localities-within and between borders-compete with each other for business and talent.
One of the elements of contemporary global competition is the quality of life offered by a locality to talented scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, analysts, artists and other experts. New York City, and many other cities around the world, recognized the connection between environment and economics, and they developed and started to implement sustainability plans. Beautiful parks, exciting public spaces, good transportation, clean air and clean water-all elements of New York's sustainability plan-are all assets in New York's effort to compete as a global city. So too is this city's global diversity. About 40 percent of the people who live in New York City were born outside the United States. This may be why New York's institutions of higher education are among the leaders in global education.
But this is not simply a New York phenomenon. My undergraduate alma mater, a small Midwestern liberal arts college, Franklin College of Indiana, is also promoting study abroad and international education. They have an Office of Global Programs and according to their website:
Students at Franklin College have the opportunity to study away beginning as early as their freshman year. This experience is a key component of a liberal arts education. Not only does it allow students to learn about other cultures and countries of the world, it also helps them develop problem-solving and cross-cultural communication skills. In a truly world economy, this experience can be invaluable upon graduation.
Educators and students from Manhattan to Middle America have recognized the importance of studying abroad. While at one time elites from America needed to study in Europe and elites in Asia and Latin America needed to study in Europe or America to be considered "educated", I think this drive to study abroad is different, although the aim is still a thorough and well-rounded education. Today's demand to study abroad does not aim to achieve a more sophisticated cultural experience, but a more varied one. The forces of the global economy and the planetary crisis of sustainability, biodiversity and climate require that an educated person be directly exposed to conditions, cultures and ideas in many locations. Rene Dubos once said we should think globally and act locally and to do that, it is important to study and understand localities from all over the globe. The skill of interacting cross-culturally is of increasing importance in a global economy. Your current boss may come from Brooklyn, but the next one may have grown up in Bogota.
The crisis of sustainability is a distinctly global crisis, but one that manifests itself in different ways in different places. As we learn more about how to solve problems caused by West Virginia's chemical contamination of its drinking water, we may have lessons to offer local governments in China. The West's experiences in reducing air pollution may be instructive to newly developed nations. The same issues Americans saw in Pittsburgh in the 1960s and 1970s are now emerging in Asia and Latin America. As I wrote last week, the transition to a sustainable economy will require the diffusion of new technologies and new modes of behavior. This will likely be accomplished across national boundaries, rather than within those boundaries. New technologies and new modes of behavior will be rapidly communicated and shared throughout the world. This trend is well underway.
Along with the lessons we can share with each other, we are seeing the start of cultural distinctions based as much on choice and taste as on geography. Young people in London, Rio, New York City and Shanghai may be listening to the same music, watching the same movies, and wearing the same styles. Social media provide frequent and easy opportunities to share perceptions, images, and new ideas. People identify with lifestyle categories as much as they do with geographic place, ethnicity or race. These multiple layers of identity are part modern life and a reason that studying abroad and hosting foreign students is such an essential element of contemporary education.
Follow Steven Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StevenACohen